Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Watchdog ballot question accepted

John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, as the watchdog rejects the Scottish Government's preferred question for the independence referendum

The Scottish Government has agreed to change the question it will put to voters in next year's independence referendum, after concerns were raised that its preferred version could be biased towards a Yes vote.

First Minister Alex Salmond had proposed to ask: Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? But the independent elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, said using the phrase "Do you agree" was commonly felt "to be biased towards a Yes outcome and potentially leading people towards a Yes vote".

The Scottish Government has accepted the commission's recommendation that the question should instead be: Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No. Subject to the approval of the Scottish Parliament, this is now likely to be the question put to people in the referendum which is due to take place in autumn next year.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish Government accepts all the commission's recommendations on the question and the campaign spending limits. The watchdog suggests higher spending limits than the SNP administration in Edinburgh proposed.

Ms Sturgeon said she was "particularly delighted with the conclusion the Electoral Commission has reached on the question".

She said: "While its view is that our proposed question was clear, simple and easy to understand, I am nevertheless happy to accept their recommended change. Their advice is based on rigorous testing and we will submit the Electoral Commission's recommended question, Should Scotland be an independent country?, to the Scottish Parliament as part of the Referendum Bill."

Ms Sturgeon also gave her backing to the spending limits the commission has suggested, saying "they deliver a level playing field and will allow a fair and balanced debate on both sides".

Pro-independence group Yes Scotland and Better Together, which wants Scotland to remain in the UK, should be allowed to spend up to £1.5 million, double the £750,000 suggested by the SNP administration, the independent watchdog recommends.

The Scottish Government also proposed that political parties in the Scottish Parliament spend a maximum £250,000. But the commission suggested the parties' spending limits be linked to their share of the vote from the 2011 Holyrood election.

This would see the SNP, which won a landslide victory, allowed to spend £1,344,000, while the Greens, who also back Yes Scotland, could spend up to £150,000. Labour would be allowed to spend £834,000, the Tories £396,000 and the Liberal Democrats £201,000. Under this system, parties who support independence could spend a maximum of £1,494,000, while unionist parties could spend £1,431,000.

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